Unit 7. Exploring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

". . . a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation."
Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was almost certainly the most extensive investigation into past injustices the world has known. It was more successful than other truth commissions, for example in Chile or Guatemala, and often is seen as a model of effective conflict resolution. By bringing to light past atrocities during dramatic public proceedings, the TRC had the cathartic power to help steer South Africa in a boldly democratic direction.

TRC Mandate and Structure

The TRC was a product of the political compromises wrought during the negotiations that ended apartheid. The 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act established the TRC to investigate politically motivated gross human rights violations perpetrated between 1960 and 1994. The intent was to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring and to unify a divided nation scarred by past conflicts. South Africa's TRC was the first truth commission to offer amnesty to individuals who fully disclosed in public their involvement in politically motivated crimes. In doing so, the democratic government embraced the juridical concept of "restorative justice" instead of the "retributive justice" embodied by a Nuremberg-style trial.

President Nelson Mandela selected a diverse group of seventeen TRC commissioners, naming Archbishop Desmond Tutu - Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid icon - as its chairperson. "Certainly, amnesty cannot be viewed as justice if we think of justice only as retributive and punitive in nature," said Tutu. "We believe, however, that there is another kind of justice—a restorative justice which is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships—with healing, harmony and reconciliation." All political forces involved in the conflict, including the ANC, were examined. The proceedings came under the full glare of the media. Ordinary South Africans came forward to provide many passionate and wrenching individual testimonies, which were broadcast live on radio and television.

Three committees constituted the TRC. The Human Rights Violations committee gathered testimony of politically motivated gross human rights abuses. Some 22,000 victims and witnesses submitted statements to the TRC, approximately ten percent in public hearings. The Amnesty Committee dispensed amnesty to perpetrators who gave "full disclosure" of atrocities they had committed for political ends. This controversial committee granted amnesty to 849 out of 7,112 applicants. Finally, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee sought to recommend to the government a policy for providing long-term reparations for victims, as well as short-term relief payments. The TRC delivered its five-volume Final Report to President Mandela in October 1998. In 2003, the Amnesty Committee and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee submitted two additional volumes to the President.

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